Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary Expands Review of Standardized Test Results

After an examination of 2009 standardized test scores raised questions, the state Education Secretary is expanding his review.  The forensic analysis conducted on the 2009 PSSA test results from around Pennsylvania raised questions about scores in nearly 3 dozen districts and some charter schools.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis first ordered a review and follow up with the schools listed in it. The schools must investigate the reasons they were flagged and report back in 30 days.

Now, the secretary has ordered a review of all exams since 2009. Education department spokesman Tim Eller says a similar report will be conducted for the 2010 PSSA

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

tests. He says the contractor was already preparing the 2011 report and will add the 2010 report to its review.

Eller says the 2011 forensic review should be ready by the end of this month and the 2010 review is expected by mid-September.

Eller says the analysis of the 2010 PSSAs will result in an additional cost of $108,000. He says the secretary believes the integrity and security of the PSSAs is of paramount importance.  He wants to ensure the results the state is getting from the tests, which are an indication of how students are performing and meeting state standards academically.

Eller says approximately 1.8 million tests are given statewide each year.  He says it’s important to ensure there’s no misconduct going on with the tests. He says the secretary is very concerned with the results of the initial 2009 report, but adds it’s important to note that the report is not an indictment of cheating or misconduct being done.

Eller says having three years’ worth of analysis will give the department a trend of the schools that appear on the report for irregularities, and allow the department to focus on areas where there could be potential issues.

Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission Endorses an Impact Fee

The Governor’s  Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission is recommending an impact fee that directs money to local governments to deal with the effects of drilling. Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, who headed the commission, says it does not recommend what the fee should look like or how it would be distributed. He says they believe that’s a matter that best resides in the legislative process.

Cawley says their charge from Governor Corbett was to determine whether or not there were uncompensated impacts that might require an impact fee.  He says in some cases they found that there are.  He says what that fee what look like is a matter for the administration and legislature to tackle.

Cawley called the report the “end of the beginning.”  He says the document will be a recommendation to the Governor.  No work begins until he says go. A final written version of the report based on Friday’s voting was being prepared to present to the Governor.  It will be made public on July 22nd.

The panel also recommended a new look at the 1961 law regulating gas extraction, to revisit language barring “forced pooling” of Marcellus gas. Patrick Henderson, the governor’s energy executive, says other formations are subject to pooling under that law, including the Utica Shale. Forced pooling could compel a landowner to lease out mineral rights if most of their neighbors have agreed to leases.

The report of the commission comes after a series of meetings that began in late March. The commission also made a number of other recommendations regarding

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley

emergency response and economic and workforce development related to the Marcellus Shale boom.  A number of the recommendations will require legislative action.

Thank you, Pennsylvania and Keep Those Emails Coming!

    This week, we wrapped up our second “Ask the Governor” taping with more fabulous questions from our Radio PA listeners and followers of First off, THANK YOU! We launched “Ask the Gov” to provide a conduit between you and your state government and the response has been fantastic. We should also thank Governor Tom Corbett for his time and efforts in giving us this monthly opportunity to interact. 
    The vast majority of questions emailed in so far have been topical, intelligent and sincere. I only wish we had time enough each month to get to each and every one while we have the governor in the studio. If you do not hear your question in a program, it doesn’t mean we ignored you. It’s possible that we just didn’t have time or we’re saving your question for a future taping. Suffice to say, we’ll get to as many as we can in each show, so keep them coming.
    Submitting a question is as simple as clicking on the Ask the Gov link at the top of the page. Make sure you include your name and town. The one rule we have is: no anonymous questions.
    Our next taping with Governor Corbett is scheduled for August 11th. We plan to spend more time on Marcellus Shale issues preview the big items on the fall legislative agenda.
    In the meantime, keep checking back with us for the latest news from the state capital and around Pennsylvania, and check us out on Facebook and Twitter (@PAMatters).


Prescription Drug Abuse

New Report Finds Gaps in Oversight for U.S. Drug Safety

A new study by the Pew Health Group finds serious gaps in the oversight of U. S. drug safety.  The report says about 40% of finished drugs and 80% of active ingredients and the bulk chemicals in U. S. pharmaceuticals come from overseas.

Allan Couckell, director of medical programs for the Pew Health Group, says the vast majority of what’s on the shelves is not counterfeit or adulterated.  But he says the change in manufacturing toward increased globalization and outsourcing means there are new risks that need to be addressed.

Couckell says in developing countries, where our drugs increasing come from, often the products are made in facilities that have less oversight from their domestic regulators. He says they’re not being inspected by the Food and Drug Administration like a producer in the United States would be inspected.

Couckell says U.S. manufacturing facilities are inspected on a regular basis, but if the same product is coming from India or China, it may be going into the drug store without any inspections. He says that’s true for prescription and over-the-counter products.

Couckell says manufacturers themselves have to guarantee quality by looking outside the walls of their factories and going back up the supply chain.  He says we also need the FDA to be able to adapt to a globalized world.  He says the law that set up the FDA is 70 years old and the world has really changed since then.

He says the FDA and some manufacturers are taking steps already, but for the agency to be able to work with regulators in other countries and do the kind of international oversight that we need, the law needs to be updated. Couckell says we need to update the laws and the system to make sure we’re not at risk.

House Democratic Policy Committee Holds Hearings on Budget Impact

The House Democratic Policy Committee has been holding a series of hearings on the impact of the new state budget.  At a hearing Wednesday, Brinda Carroll Penyak, deputy executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, told the Committee that cuts in funding for mandated programs will mean some tough choices.

Penyak says counties have less desire to raise property taxes than anyone, it’s not something they do freely, and they’re very concerned with how some of the impacts will have to be dealt with locally. She says when mandate lines get cut; anything that might be considered preventative or optional can go by the wayside pretty quickly. She says child welfare funding was reduced by 45 million dollars.

Penyak says cuts in funding for mandated programs have a ripple effect. She says these are not services you can decide not to offer, you can’t put abused kids on a waiting list. She says the ability to provide the service has to come first.

Penyak says the budget also cut funding for the Human Services Development Fund, and it’s now about 70% below what it was a few years ago. She says in a lot of cases, that money is used to pay for things that actually prevent more costly situations from occurring.

Penyak says counties have been getting less and less money for 9 years now. A lot of them have made significant changes and have tightened their belts as much as they can.

Bill Would Get Pennsylvania Out of the Booze Business


State Rep. Mike Turzai

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai Discusses his Privatization Plan at a Capitol News Conference

Spirits are high as House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) mounts a new campaign to privatize Pennsylvania’s liquor stores.  “We should not be in the business of pushing alcohol sales… while at the same time being the agency that is charged with law enforcement,” Turzai says, referring to the current control system.  In fact, Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states that exercise complete control over their liquor systems. 

The Turzai plan (HB 11) would auction off 1,250 retail liquor licenses to the highest responsible bidders in the private sector.  750 of those licenses would be for outlets with at least 15,000 square feet of retail space, while the remaining 500 licenses would be for smaller retailers.  “We will absolutely maintain the tax revenue structure for the General Fund,” Turzai told reporters at a capitol news conference.  “In addition, with the auctioning of the retail licenses and the sale of the wholesale licenses, we will absolutely make an upfront value.” 

Rep. Turzai estimates that upfront windfall to be up to $2-billion dollars.  The bill does not discuss how to spend that cash.  Turzai says there will need to be a policy discussion on that, but points to state pension obligations and transportation infrastructure as two possibilities. 

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) currently operates about 644- wine & spirits stores.  All bottles receive a 30% markup and a handling fee, on top of the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax.  The Turzai plan would replace those levies with a “Gallonage Tax.”  Though – as alluded to in the earlier quote – Turzai believes the state will still collect $400 million dollars in taxes, each year.    

Governor Tom Corbett does not believe Pennsylvania should be in the business of selling liquor and wine.  He made that point clear when speaking to reporters on Tuesday.  But, he had not yet seen Turzai’s proposal.  “If we’re not to be in the business, how do we get out of it and where does it go, and where does the state get revenue.  That all has to be taken into consideration,” Corbett said.

Privatization supporters will tell you that Pennsylvania consumers would benefit from the competition.  They say privatization would lead to better selection, prices and convenience.  But, opinions are mixed

Wendell Young

UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young Opposes Privatization

One of the biggest critics of privatization is Wendell Young, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776, which represents about 3,500 employees at Pennsylvania’s wine & spirits stores.  Young believes privatization would be a loss from day one.  “Pennsylvanians end up getting hosed with the cost of privatization, while the ones that buy the licenses end up with the profit that the state currently enjoys,” Young has said.  He contends that Pennsylvania has the best of both worlds right now: low consumption and high returns.  Young also believes that privatization would cost 5,000 wine & spirits store workers their jobs.

Governor Tom Corbett Defends Education Budget

The new state budget has been in place for about two weeks now, but its impact on public schools is still being sorted out.  “We don’t know yet how many teachers wound up being furloughed, and how many program cuts, so we’re trying to gather that information,” says Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). 

Governor Tom Corbett points out that state education funding has actually increased.  “When it comes to the basic education formula, we actually increased it over the 2008/2009 level,” Corbett said on Radio PA’s monthly “Ask the Governor” program.  He places blame on the prior administration for cutting school funding from the state, only to back-fill with federal stimulus money.  “That money is gone,” Corbett concluded. 

By balancing their budgets with federal stimulus money, Corbett says many school districts set themselves up to fall off this funding cliff.  At least one school district got it right though, according to Corbett.  He singled out Northern Lehigh School District on the program.  “They did not take the federal money and put it into their basic funding formula.  They haven’t laid anybody off, they haven’t cut any classes, they were – in my opinion – responsible in that.” 

However, the PSBA’s Tom Gentzel stresses it was the legislature who put the federal money into schools’ regular appropriation.  “So this wasn’t just a decision on the part of school districts… it was a part of the state funding for education,” Gentzel explains.  He adds that school districts are feeling the pain beyond the basic education funding line item. 

When including the federal stimulus money, basic education funding was trimmed by about $400-million dollars (though Governor Corbett was correct when he said the state’s share increased).  The Accountability Block Grants, which fund full-day kindergarten programs, were cut by about $150-million dollars.  Completely eliminated was the reimbursement of charter schools.  That line item received more than $220-million dollars last year.

PA School Districts

Will Act 1 Changes Give Voters Greater Say?

State lawmakers’ last act before the summer break was to send Governor Tom Corbett a bill to limit the Act 1 exceptions that allow school districts to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, without a voter referendum.  Governor Corbett called it an essential bill of the budget season, and managed to cajole lawmakers into a compromise. 

Governor Tom Corbett

Gov. Tom Corbett Visits With Students at Nativity School in Harrisburg

Appearing on Radio PA’s monthly “Ask the Governor” program, Corbett said the compromise should help keep school district spending under control.  Would he sign a bill to further reduce the remaining exceptions?  Yes.  “But, let’s take that half a loaf that we have right now and see how it’s working,” Corbett says.  The new law will take effect in July 2012. 

Pension costs represent one of the big exceptions that lawmakers ultimately kept in the Act 1 law.  Corbett says the pension woes were created by years of underfunding.  “There are a lot of sins of the past that are being paid for now, by everybody,” Corbett adds. 

Franklin & Marshall College political science professor Terry Madonna says it remains to be seen whether this new law will truly give PA taxpayers the chance to vote on property tax increases above the rate of inflation.  “One of the things that will play out will be whether or not this law… with two exceptions, whether those exceptions are meaningful,” Madonna tells us. 

As Governor Corbett awaits the opportunity to evaluate the law’s success, he notes that taxpayers are also the first line of defense against out-of-control school spending.  “We’re in a municipal [election] year,” Corbett says, emphasizing taxpayers’ ability to elect their school board members. 

Many school officials are already concerned that the new law will lead to additional reductions in educational programming.  They know it’s difficult to convince voters to approve any hike in property taxes.

State Education Department to Review Report on 2009 PSSA Tests

State education officials are taking a closer look at an analysis of the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test results.   The report raised questions about standardized math and reading test scores in nearly 3 dozen districts and some charter schools. It was prepared under the previous administration, but only recently came to light.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis has ordered a review and follow up with the schools listed in it, according to state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.  He says the reports highlights possible questionable areas at the school building level where irregularities exist with PSSA testing.  Eller adds the report does not specifically say problems occurred, it indicates some further examination needs to be done.

Eller says the secretary got the information yesterday.  He could not say exactly why the information is coming to light now.  He says it appears it was not a priority of the prior administration.  He says the report, to their knowledge, has not been reviewed or acted on in the past.

Eller says the forensic analysis was not performed last year; it was not funded in the department’s budget.  The Secretary had already revived it for the 2011 tests before questions began about the 2009 report.

Eller says many of the schools flagged in the report are in Philadelphia, but there are schools in other parts of the state as well that are listed within the report, which was prepared by a state contractor.

Which One of These Cities is Not Like the Others?

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan

Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans… and Chester, PA are among the six cities taking part in a new pilot initiative from the Obama Administration called Strong Cities, Strong Communities.  The population in Cleveland, OH is about 430,000.  Detroit’s population is around 900,000.  Chester, on the other hand, has about 37,000 residents.  “Chester, specifically, we wanted to make sure that there was a smaller place engaged… and we thought Chester was a very good example of that,” says Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan

In a conference call with reporters, Donovan said all of the cities involved in the pilot share similar long-term economic challenges, including population loss and deteriorating infrastructure.  Each city also has its own economic development plan in place. 

Strong Cities, Strong Communities is designed to cut through the federal red tape and get cities working cooperatively with the federal government.  Federal agencies will be providing technical assistance on the ground, and developing relationships with the regions’ leaders.  Officials say they will leverage existing federal dollars. 

The other two cities in the pilot include Fresno, CA and Memphis, TN, which have populations in the 480,000 and 675,000 ranges respectively.  In addition, communities across the country will be eligible to compete for federal grants that would provide economic planning assistance.

(That’s Detroit’s skyline pictured above)